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Good Reads  Botany  Plants & Botany: Biology & Ecology

The Incredible Journey of Plants

Popular Science
By: Stefano Mancuso(Author), Grisha Fischer(Illustrator), Gregory Conti(Translated by)
158 pages, colour illustrations
Publisher: Other Press
The Incredible Journey of Plants is a fascinating collection of excellent vignettes that shows the many ways plants move through our world.
The Incredible Journey of Plants
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  • The Incredible Journey of Plants ISBN: 9781635421910 Paperback May 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-4 weeks
  • The Incredible Journey of Plants ISBN: 9781635429916 Hardback Mar 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-4 weeks
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About this book

In this richly illustrated volume, a leading neurobiologist presents fascinating stories of plant migration that reveal unexpected connections between nature and culture.

When we talk about migrations, we should study plants to understand that these phenomena are unstoppable. In the many different ways plants move, we can see the incessant action and drive to spread life that has led plants to colonize every possible environment on earth. The history of this relentless expansion is unknown to most people, but we can begin our exploration with these surprising tales, engagingly told by Stefano Mancuso.

Generation after generation, using spores, seeds, or any other means available, plants move in the world to conquer new spaces. They release huge quantities of spores that can be transported thousands of miles. The number and variety of tools through which seeds spread is astonishing: we have seeds dispersed by wind, by rolling on the ground, by animals, by water, or by a simple fall from the plant, which can happen thanks to propulsive mechanisms, the swaying of the mother plant, the drying of the fruit, and much more.

In this accessible, absorbing overview, Mancuso considers how plants convince animals to transport them around the world, and how some plants need particular animals to spread; how they have been able to grow in places so inaccessible and inhospitable as to remain isolated; how they resisted the atomic bomb and the Chernobyl disaster; how they are able to bring life to sterile islands; how they can travel through the ages, as they sail around the world.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A gem of a book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 11 Jan 2022 Written for Paperback

    Italian plant neurobiologist (yes, this is a thing) Stefano Mancuso previously impressed me with The Revolutionary Genius of Plants. With The Incredible Journey of Plants, he has written a captivating collection of vignettes around the subject of plant migration. We tend not to think of plants as moving creatures because they are rooted to the ground. But this, as Mancuso shows, is where we are mistaken.

    This book was originally published in Italian in 2018 as L'Incredibile Viaggio delle Piante by Editori Laterza. The English version, courtesy of translator Gregory Conti, has been released by US publisher Other Press. Right at the start, Mancuso recaps the main (and for me most memorable) point of The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: plants are so very different from us because their body plan is the inverse of ours. Animals concentrate functionality in specialised organs while plants distribute these throughout their body in a diffuse fashion. Mancuso immediately demonstrates his deft pen when to this he adds: "We will never be able to understand plants if we look at them as if they were impaired animals" (p. xiv).

    To put that into the context of this book, it is incorrect to say that plants do not move – the time-lapse footage showing otherwise will be familiar to many. We need to be more precise. "What plants are unable to do is locomote, or move from place to place, at least not in the course of their lifetime" (p. xiii). If the idea of plants moving through space in slow-motion, generation by generation, sounds familiar, that is because you remember my review of the amazing The Journeys of Trees. Though Mancuso explores the same principle, there is, remarkably, almost no duplication between these two books.

    What follows are six chapters that look at plant migration from different angles, each chapter written as a collection of two or three vignettes that tell the story of certain plant species. Thus, we meet the pioneering plants that colonize volcanic islands or that, like an unstoppable tide, move in as soon as humans abandon a place, such as the Chernobyl exclusion zone. We meet the invasive species that have spread around the world. And the rare species whose seeds can survive long oceanic voyages (Darwin wasted a lot of time testing many of them). We encounter the time-travellers who have either outlived us many times over as some of the most ancient beings alive or whose seeds have bridged time in dormancy, only to be revived decades, centuries, sometimes millennia later.

    There are the paradoxical lonely trees and the stories of how they ended up in some of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. And we meet the unlikely evolutionary anachronisms: those plants who rely on a few or only one animal species to transport their seeds. They have tied their fate to their disperser, and extinction of the latter often means extinction of the former. Occasionally, such plants survive by latching on to a new seed disperser "while maintaining [...] as a souvenir of these "dangerous liaisons," some bizarre characteristics, reasonable only in light of their original partnership with now-extinct animals and today completely out of place" (p. 133).

    What makes this collection of stories irresistible is how Mancuso combines science and history. I found the research explaining why the seed of the coco de mer palm is so huge just as captivating as the history of the Roman siege of the Israeli fortress-palace of Masada. Its archaeological remains have yielded seeds of date palms that could be revived 2000 years later. Mancuso's writing is superb, whether relating the emotive story of the plants and humans that survived the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, or giving you a deft two-sentence explanation of the difficulties faced by stratigraphers trying to define new geological epochs such as the Anthropocene.

    Through it all runs Mancuso's rebellious streak. When it comes to invasive species, he echoes Chris D. Thomas's sentiment expressed in Inheritors of the Earth. "Plants that are now perceived as part of our cultural heritage are merely well-assimilated foreigners" (p. 26), as shown by the story of Oxford ragwort, an invader from Sicily. Similarly, "the species that we consider invasive today are the natives of tomorrow" (p. 27). And when discussing evolutionary anachronisms, he admonishes our species. "In nature everything is connected. This simple law that humans don't seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species [...] has unforeseeable consequences" (p. 135).

    The book is accompanied by watercolour drawings by Grisha Fischer. However, these do not show the plants or plant structures described in the text, some of which, such as the voluptuously shaped coco de mer, are better pictured than described. Instead, it seems that the illustrator was given carte blanche to interpret the theme of "plant migration". She has drawn imaginary maps composed of leaves and other plant parts that, though atmospheric, seem in no way connected to what the text is describing. At least, not as far as I could discern.

    The Incredible Journey of Plants is a delightful book that is nicely paced and full of fascinating science told in a captivating manner. I found it impossible to put down, though you can easily dip in and out of this book if you are pressed for time. If plants do not normally excite you, think again. This is a little gem that you do not want to miss.
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Stefano Mancuso is one of the world's leading authorities in the field of plant neurobiology, which explores signalling and communication at all levels of biological organization. He is a professor at the University of Florence and has published more than 250 scientific papers in international journals. His previous books include The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior and Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence.

Gregory Conti teaches English at the University of Perugia and is a regular contributor to Raritan. His recent translations include Seven Poems by Elisa Biagini, The Fault Line by Paolo Rumiz, and A Soldier on the Southern Front by Emilio Lussu.

Popular Science
By: Stefano Mancuso(Author), Grisha Fischer(Illustrator), Gregory Conti(Translated by)
158 pages, colour illustrations
Publisher: Other Press
The Incredible Journey of Plants is a fascinating collection of excellent vignettes that shows the many ways plants move through our world.
Media reviews

"Mancuso is a genial narrator, who tells the story of plants' journeys through well-crafted stories that are embellished by the sweetly decorative watercolors of Grisha Fischer. He effortlessly interweaves science with history, philosophy, and humor and introduces fascinating characters, very much including the plants themselves, which take on human, even heroic, traits."
Wall Street Journal

"A gripping series of evolutionary history vignettes about plants that have coexisted either in spite of or due to human intervention [...] a new perspective on that hazy term, 'nature.'"

"An absorbing overview of botanical history and why its understanding is vital to the earth's future."

"Anecdotes enliven Mancuso's quirky little global history, which argues that plants 'are more sensitive than animals.'"

"[An] elegant and charmingly illustrated survey [...] The topics of human intervention and plant evolution are gracefully intertwined in discussions of coconut trees, date palms, and bristlecone pines [...] naturalists and the culinary-inclined will cherish this collection of botanical vignettes."
Publishers Weekly

"Illuminating and surprisingly lively [...] [Mancuso] smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research [...] An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults."
Kirkus Reviews

"A love letter from a botanist to the plants he studies, written in a breezy and poetic style. Reading this book will give you a whole new appreciation for plants and their many remarkable lifestyles and adaptations. You'll never look at a blade of grass or a forest of trees the same way again!"
– Steve Brusatte, University of Edinburgh paleontologist and New York Times/ Sunday Times bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

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